John Keating… Joe Clark… Bill Rago… George Feeny. Real or fictional, these are teachers who have inspired and taught us through their movies. There’s no doubt that Erin Gruwell, the teacher behind The Freedom Writers Diary, is worthy of having her name included on that inspirational list. Freedom Writers tells her story.
Erin Gruwell was thrown into the lion’s den in her first year of teaching. In the early 1990s, Woodrow Wilson High School was engulfed in racial tension, echoing the nation at the time of the Rodney King beatings and L.A. riots. Despite her environment and a near fatal case of naiveté, Gruewell managed to make an important connection with her students and help them learn, not only about reading and writing, but about history and the world around them and, most importantly, about tolerance. The journals and diaries Gruwell had her students keep were eventually published as The Freedom Writers Diary, the basis for Freedom Writers the movie.
As Gruwell, Hilary Swank does an excellent job of portraying that first year teacher – so full of optimism and hope (I say this as someone about to enter that myself). Gruwell wears pearls her father gave her when the other teachers have no adornments. She dreams of teaching Homer’s “The Odyssey” to students on personal journeys with goals of just surviving the day. Yet Swank carries the character with an uncomfortable confidence – someone who knows they can be a good teacher, but is suddenly being faced with things teacher preparation programs didn't prepare her for. Even as reality sets in, however, Gruwell doesn’t lose her cool, which, albeit inspiring, almost creates a caricature of the real person. It’s hard to believe the real Gruwell never broke down or never had a moment of doubt the way Swank plays it.
Opposing Gruwell outside of the classroom are the typical clichéd obstacles: the unsupportive administration, the family who doesn’t understand, etc. In fact, in lesser hands these roles might be trite, cookie-cutter borrowings from other stories. Instead each of these positions is handled quite well despite a rather flat script. Imelda Staunton shows as much passion for teaching as Gruwell’s supervisor as the protagonist herself does. She just doesn’t use the same methods to try and reach the students. Patrick Dempsey plays the dejected, unsupportive husband with such believability that it makes me want to blacklist every other role Dempsey has ever played to rid myself of the prick. The roles are flat stereotypes, but the acting brings them alive.
The movie spends a tremendous amount of time on Gruwell’s story for a film advertised as “Their story. Their words.” The true story here should be that of the kids who wrote the Freedom Writer diaries: how they survived growing up in their environment; how an extraordinary teacher affected them. Instead, Gruwell is the central character of the movie, with one or two of the characters as secondary stories. Personally, I think the picture could have been more effective as an ensemble piece, truly telling “their stories” and showing how Gruwell inspired them through that – a sort of urban Dead Poet’s Society if you will.
There’s no arguing that Freedom Writers is an inspirational story. The film gives teachers yet another role model to look up to and strive to be. It also shows the downside of being the devoted teacher Gruwell was: divorce, administrative battles, etc. Perhaps by centering the movie around the teacher instead of the students, Freedom Writers dodges the bullet of portraying teaching as a completely idyllic occupation. Yes, teachers can make a difference, but the costs can be equally high. If Swank’s portrayal of the character carried a little more realistic reaction to these events, the movie might be a perfect window into teaching. Instead, the movie feels like the stuff of legends. Any teacher can affect students if they are noble enough to make the proper sacrifices and never look back.
As fascinating as the movie is, the DVD comes up short in quite a few ways. Although the disc is pretty loaded with extras, most of the bonus materials are nothing more than promotional propaganda, designed to help hype the film. Unfortunately, compared with the movie itself, they are less than impressive. Even worse, the propaganda begins to contradict itself the farther into the disc you get.
There are about ten minutes of deleted scenes, most of which are the typical “should have been deleted” type of material. Hoever, one deleted piece, which makes up the bulk of the ten minutes, is the exception. During dinner with the students, we get to see the moment of realization for Gruwell’s father as it dawns on him that these children’s plight is not that different from the civil rights movement he was once involved in. In fact, he seems to realize that his civil rights work didn’t do the job it was supposed to. It’s a tangible change for the character that is implied in the final picture, but these few minutes would have helped develop that one character a little more. It’s great to see it here in the deleted scenes, but I wish the scene had been in the movie itself.
Several featurettes can be found on the disc, but they are really the most disappointing aspect of the DVD. “Making ‘A Dream’” is a quick look at the theme song of the movie, which mixes elements of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech with 90’s styled hip-hop music. It’s neat to see the passion Wil.I.Am (from the Black Eyed Peas) has for creating music, but the featurette is little more than trivia. “Freedom Writers Family” is a look behind the scenes at the making of the movie, and tries to push the idea that the cast shared similar experiences with Gruwell’s students growing up. Oddly, most of the young cast have several listings at imdb prior to Freedom Writers, which suggests their experiences may not be that close at all. There’s that propaganda angle I was talking about – ironic considering the movie’s parallel use of Nazis and gangs.
The most disappointing of the featuretes is “Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story.” Given that title, one would expect the featurette to tell a little more about Erin Gruwell and the real Freedom Writers. Sadly, the real Gruwell barely appears in this featurette – odd since she’s in “Freedom Writers Family” quite a bit. Completely absent are the real Freedom Writers – even stranger since several of them appear in minor roles in the movie. Instead “The Story Behind the Story” is a ten-minute promotional tool for the film. It doesn’t talk about the real story at all, just promotes the storyline of the movie and allows the cast and filmmakers to talk about their perspective on the tale. This means the disc lacks any look at the true story behind the movie, which is something that really should be on a DVD release like this.
Adding to the DVD’s hypocrisy is a commentary track with director Richard LaGravenese and Hilary Swank. LaGravenese points out the experience of his younger actors as they are introduced in the movie, and confirms how little experience with gangs or this environment many of them had. In fact, the actress who plays the film’s central secondary character, Eva, wasn’t even aware of the danger of wearing the wrong colors into the wrong neighborhoods. That’s not to say all of the cast was unaware. An actor who played one of the minor parts was killed shortly after the film wrapped for refusing to hand over a chain he was given by his skateboard coach. But the idea that the cast reflects Gruwell’s students is something that was overplayed in the promotion of the film. Swank adds little to the commentary as it was recorded the day of the premiere and she had yet to see the final product, meaning music and many scenes that didn’t include her were brand new for the actress.